The Deep Listening of Funding

by Mario Garcia Durham (bio), president and CEO, Association of Performing Arts Presenters

Holly Sidford begins her report Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy by quoting Dudley Cocke of Roadside Theater: “Art holds a mirror up to society.” Funders hold a similar mirror and must be in arts society in the same way artists must be in civil society. Funders also bear the responsibility of connecting to, participating in and experiencing the arts of underserved communities. Otherwise, the opportunities for balance and equity remain a challenge, and funders compromise the kind of dynamic democracy a full range of voices and arts experiences creates.

What fundamental skill is necessary to assure grantmaking is balanced and supports more equity? The composer Pauline Oliveros developed “deep listening” as an approach to music — as well as other art forms. Her philosophy makes a distinction between involuntary hearing and voluntary listening. The practice “cultivates appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, expanding the potential for connection and interaction with one’s environment.” In Sidford’s report, Roberto Bedoya of Tucson Pima Arts Council calls for “humility” and “curiosity” (both important to good listening skills) and Lori Pourier of First Peoples Fund calls grantmaking “long-term work” (also vital to effective listening).

If funders embrace deep listening — the way the best doctors take cues from patients — then everyone becomes a stakeholder, both the funder and the funded. When art, social justice or community takes place, it is because someone has listened.

How might funders encourage this skill? One approach might be to re-figure the grantmaking process — move it out of the realm of paperwork and into human-to-human contact. What if we think of grantmakers as fieldworkers, whose job is to take to the street (rather than to the application) and engage underserved communities in their own settings? The most determined presenters do this: They scout down back roads and out-of-the-way places to find new art or old traditions that have lost placement in the mainstream.

This approach can be challenging to funders, especially on a national level. During my time at the National Endowment for the Arts, budget dollars were tight. Travel was encouraged but always tied to limited budgets. The practice of site visits was all but eliminated. As a former funder and now as the president of a national service organization, I face the challenge of carefully budgeting so I, too, can have the direct interaction with and experience of the arts, artists and communities that contribute to the diversity and dynamics of our field. But I am committed to “deep listening” and believe that if funders embrace a face-to-face approach, their dollars can help build richer opportunities for a full range of artists and communities to animate our democracy.